Louise speaks to two teachers who have inspired herEpisode 1, Jo and Michelle Keane
Teachers Inspire curator and podcast host, acclaimed author Louise O’Neill, speaks to her former English teacher, Jo Keane, about the impact of Jo giving her The Handmade’s Tale to read. It is the first time they have chatted publicly about it! Louise also chats to her sister Michelle, who is a primary school teacher in Clonakilty, county Cork, and finds out why she wanted to teach.
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00:00 Louise O’Neill
Welcome to the first of the Teachers Inspire podcasts for 2022. Organized and run by Dublin City University, Teachers Inspire is an Ireland wide initiative that seeks to celebrate teachers and to recognise the transformative role they play in our lives and in our communities.
My name is Louise O'Neill and I am delighted that I have been asked once again to curate and share with you the many uplifting stories about teachers who have made a difference in your life. Some of these stories are on the website Teachersinspire.ie
Later in the series, we will look at some of the teachers nominated this year, and what made them inspirational teachers. We will also remind you of the stories behind the nominations received in recent years and hear from some of the teachers, students and parents behind them.
So, to begin this year’s podcast, I wanted to introduce you to a teacher who had a huge influence on me when I was in secondary school.
Now I have frequently mentioned Ms. Keane, and how when she gave me a book ‘The Handmaid's Tale’ to read, it had such a massive impact on me.
And to me, that is an example of how a teacher can have a life changing influence on a young person.
Now, this, however, is the first time that we have actually chatted about this publicly, so Jo, I am delighted to welcome you to the Teachers Inspire podcast.
01:45 Jo Keane:
Hi, Louise, it's good to talk to you.
Yeah I do, I feel like I should apologise and say, because I feel like it must be mortifying at this point, because I've definitely referenced you about like, 20 times publicly now.
Listen, not at all, I’ll take all the good publicity I can get at this stage.
Truly, and you know, I suppose it wasn't, I mean that was such an important moment for me, when you gave me that book, because I remember going home and reading it, I read it in one sitting. I mean, I had no idea who Margaret Atwood was and, you know, when I when I looked up from the pages of that book, I felt as if the way in which I looked at the world had completely changed and I really mean this, I would not have become the person I am, I would not have become the writer that I am. I wouldn't be here today, you know, having this conversation with you, if you hadn't given me if you hadn't given me that, that book that day.
So I know what isn't doesn't just show the power of literature and the gifts that is literature. You know, it is a gift.
Yeah, it is it is. I also felt like, you know, in your classroom, you know, I really felt like you prepared me. I mean, I went on to study English in Trinity, and I really felt like you prepared me for those classes.
Because, you know, I suppose that it was such a, it was a space in that classroom for like, really robust discussion. And it felt like you were very.. you are challenging teacher.
And I think that like, that was something that really stood out to me. And I really appreciated that because I think when you have someone who's pushing you to be better, I suppose it makes you think that, maybe you believe, that you you can be better.
You know, I think those words kind of challenging and robust. It's great to hear that because, you know, the one thing I would be afraid of is that maybe we're a little bit cowed now in kind of maybe challenging students a little bit. But I think, you know, when you're with a good class, and when you're with 17/18/19 year olds, they love to be challenged, they rise to a challenge. I think that's the great thing about teaching, you know, that you, you know, you read your audience, and you know, what they're able for and they love to fight back a little bit, you know, so it's no harm.
Yes, I think to be to be treated like an adult, you know, to be given that level of respect, I think, in a classroom. I think that's a good thing.
That's great. And again, I suppose I would have remembered that myself from my own school days, our teacher in Skibbereen, where I went to school, Mercy Heights, Mrs. O'Byrne, she would have, you know, adopted that attitude - quite authoritative, but not condescending.
You know, there was a way there was a discussion. You know, we were invited to kind of defend our points of view. And that was, I suppose, that atmosphere in the classes, it wasn't about, you know, she was sitting up there giving notes, it was about interchanging ideas and that's so important, you know, and I think that's one of the joys of teaching really, that you can invite and you can open a discussion, you know, with young people and young people are so intensively engaged at some level, I think they're just at the cusp of adulthood. So they're, you know, full of passion, really, you know, and if you can tap into that, it's great.
What do you what do you get out of your job like what are the aspects that you find the most rewarding? And I suppose what are the aspects that you find challenging?
I suppose the, the one thing that I would find, I suppose more challenging is that there's so much more, I suppose, expected of teachers now, I think we're expected to be, you know, counsellors and social workers.
And we have to be very cognisant of, you know, the individual needs of students and sometimes that's very difficult to juggle when you're, you know, dealing with a class of 28 or 29. So, you know, you have to get the syllabus covered. So, the most challenging thing is catering for all the diverse and individual needs.
The most rewarding thing, and I'm sure you will be able to empathize with this is when you know, that you have, you know, 28 people sitting in front of you, and you're all on the same page, might be different abilities, and might be different levels of engagement but when a text works, and when the conversation is shared and when there's a sort of a communal learning experience. There's nothing like that.
You know, it’s interesting, I was just thinking there when you were talking that when people ask me, I mean, it is so hard to sort of see influences in your own books, but like, I remember thinking, well, Only Ever Yours was very much influenced by The Handmaid's Tale, but that was when I when I'm writing that, like, I mean, my writing is very different to John McGahern but I suppose that idea of trying to keep it you know, I remember you saying that, the simplicity of his language,
Jo: and spare
Louise: Yes. And then that there was so much, there was always so much in it and, and now I'm like, you're basically responsible for my career. It's just, it's just what I'm trying to say.
You are so good, you are so good to say all those nice things, Louise.
No. I suppose I'd love to know, because I often wonder with teachers, you know, we've spoken to people, students who have said, there's one comment that a teacher made and the teacher can, can barely even remember it. And, and I would love to know if you, if you remember that that day, in fourth year when..
I do actually, would you believe I do Louise because I think I was really lucky, my post at the time, you know, there's kind of what they call a Special Duties post.
And I was given by Sr Eilish who was principal at the time, she put me in charge of the library. So I was able to spend loads of money down in Kerr’s and down and Coughlan’s on books, so I had a great time ordering all these books.
So I knew exactly, you know, where all these books might be on the shelf. So, I used to go into the library before the class would come over, I think I don't know if you remember that. And I had all the books kind of out on those long tables.
Louise: Yes, yes., I do. I do. I do remember the books out on it.
Jo: And I’d know, know, some of the some of the students who say, Oh, God, don't, don't, don't give me anything now, or I'm not a great reader or it takes me you know, six months to read a book.
And I would kind of pick out a book that I think somebody might like, but I remember The Handmaid's Tale was one and I said, Oh, for God's sake, Louise will gobble this up. You know. So I said you read you read that, you know, so I do. I remember it. And I remember just the light in the library and we were very lucky to have such a such a well-stocked library.
You know, it was wonderful. And as I said, Sr. Eilish was very, you know, encouraging, she’d you know go down now, you can spend, you can buy about 30 or 40 books now, sure it was great, you know, but I remember, I remember deefinitely you were I said, there you go now, Louis. So I do remember very clearly.
Well, as I said, I mean, you know, and I don't say this lightly, you know, like you did change my life, you know it's true.
And like when Teachers Inspire when they asked me would I would I curate these awards, I you know, it was such an automatic Yes for me, because I could so clearly, I mean, I think I've been very lucky to have like lots of wonderful teachers, but I suppose Yes, I suppose I could so clearly point to one very specific moment with one book with one teacher in that library.
And I could see the way in which that had, like, played out throughout the rest of my life. And I just thought like, you know, with the, with the awards, it's just this wonderful opportunity for people I suppose to talk about their own experiences and those moments with teachers in their lives, and the and the impact that it has, and I suppose teachers get such a bad rap sometimes I just feel like it's a great opportunity to celebrate ye and say thank you so much for the work you do.
And it is wonderful. Yeah, not at all. It's lovely to be given a platform really and I'm delighted, delighted with your success of course I'm very proud, so no it’s great.
You can claim, you and my parents, the two of ye or the three of ye. Thank you so much for coming on today, Jo, it's just so great to talk to you.
I really believe that teachers are important. You know, they can get a bad rap. And they're teased about their short hours and long holidays. But the truth is, not everyone can teach. And it's because of that, that the idea of Teachers Inspire, which allows people to retroactively celebrate teachers, it really appealed to me because I know that teachers can go above and beyond for their students. I've seen it in my own life.
My sister is a teacher. And during COVID, she sent a postcard to every boy in her class during lockdown just to let them know, she was thinking of them. Her name is Michelle. And she teaches Junior and Senior infants in Scoil na mBuachaillí, Clonakilty and she joins me now.
Why did you decide to go into teaching?
I think I've always wanted to be a teacher. Always. I think even as a kid, like, you probably don't remember a lot of this but like as a kid, I always loved children.
I remember Rhona, you know our cousin Rhona, one of her birthdays, her brother Hugh had just been born, and her mom Ann always tells me this story that she was like, where is Michelle she should be here somewhere and I was upstairs in the bedroom just watching Hugh sleep and which is for a 4 or 5 year old to be doing…
But just as long as I can remember, I just, I've always just like loved kids and loved their company and just the joy and I don’t know the kind of fun and sense of adventure they kind of have that we lose as we get older.
I know. I know. And I think I mean, I've really seen that. People often say to me, oh, you know, are you ever recognised at home?
And I say, Well, my father is, you know, this sort of football star. And then I was like, Oh, my sister is a primary school teacher. And whenever we meet the kids that you teach, they act as if they have just seen like Jennifer Lawrence, like they're so excited and they just, they just can't just want to know everything about you. And like I they like that in class as well as they always kind of asking you questions about your personal life or..
Oh massively, even today on yard one of the teachers came up to me and she was like, you have to stop walking past my classroom. And I was like, ‘What do you mean, I've to stop walking past your classroom, and she said, Michelle, it's like a celebrity goes past, she was like the seven boys that were in your class last year, they just start running over to the window and they're looking at me like there's Miss O’Neill, there’s Miss O’Neill, we want to go back to her classroom last year.
There's just something special, I think there's no more no other job really where like, you could be asked the most innocuous questions like, what did you have for breakfast or do you prefer pancakes or waffles? Or what's your favorite dinosaur? Or you know, what's your favorite colour, just, it is just magic?
What is your favorite dinosaur? I'm very curious now.
Yeah, I just kind of go with whatever they're talking about. Like the T Rex, because it's really big. Or this one's it's really fast.
I mean, do you remember when you're when you were a kid? Like was there, was there ever a teacher ,I suppose that you felt that they made you want to become a teacher? Or just that you remember them really fondly?
Yes. I think when I was in primary school, I had the same teacher for three different years, I had Caroline Hourihan, did you ever have her?
So my class, I suppose we were very kind of lucky. I suppose we had her in junior infants. So, we had her again in fourth class and fifth class. And she was just, I don't know, there was just something about her.
And like, it's not even that I can remember anything she said to me, or anything massive like that, I just think it was the way she was.
And she was just so kind. I think we always felt so safe. And I remember in fifth class, when we were told that we wouldn't have her in sixth class, we were all absolutely devastated because we just, we adored her.
And like I remember one day was really sunny. And she's like, right we are going outside. And we were doing this drama lesson, and I can't remember what it was. I think we all had to act out different parts of the news or something. And like, you know, that's just like one tiny thing. It was probably a 20 minute lesson. I think like, even now, what God I don't know how many years later, I can still remember it. That's kind of what makes I suppose a teacher a good teacher is those kinds of small moments.
And you know, it's not like learning a table. Obviously, all that stuff's important too but it's those fun things that you do that you kind of that you remember. They're the things you'll remember forever. And that's just what I remember from her. She was amazing.
I mean with you. I mean, I know obviously I mean, I saw you, ou know, during lockdown, and just how concerned you were for your kids and just really wanting to make sure that no child like slipped through the cracks on your watch, you know, and I remember during the first lockdown when you sent, like a postcard to every kid in your class, and I just thought it was so sweet.
And like when you talk about what you remember about Mrs. Hourhihan like, I know that those kids in your class in your class in years to come will remember that postcard. And that will really mean something to them.
I hope so. At the time, I was teaching junior and senior infants and one mum said to me, she was like, her son just turned to her one day and said, Mom, I like just don't understand it, one day we were in class, and then everyone was gone. He was like, teacher was gone, all my friends were gone. And, you know, he couldn't get his head around it. And then it was when we started Zoom she said he was so happy every day, that he didn't care what we were doing, all he cared about was just seeing all the boxes and seeing all of his friends that they were actually still there. They hadn't just disappeared. You know, it's just Yeah, it was awful for them.
Yeah. And I suppose it I presume it's moments like that. But, you know, what do you think you get out of being a teacher? Like, what is it about it that you like?
It's, I suppose it's kind of different in every class that you're teaching. but like I've been in infants now, kind of in senior infants, mainly for the last seven or eight years. And it's just that moment when something clicks.
And like, you could go through months and months and months of a child looking at the word ‘cat’, and they're saying, cu-at, cu-at, cu-at, I’m like my sounds, and you’re like oh god they are never going to get this and then one day, they're just like ‘cat!’
And then you're like, Oh, my God, I taught this child how to read, I taught them how to sound out the letter and put it all together. And it's just, I think, at that age, in particular, it's so rewarding, because like, they are like sponges, and they take everything in, but like you're teaching them, you know, everyone's like, Oh God, infants is so easy.
So what are you teaching them, you're teaching them, you know, the numbers, and you're teaching them letters and you know, their colouring and you’re like, yeah, but it's just it is that moment when everything clicks.
And you know, as I said, like everyone thinks, oh, you know, infants are so easy, and all they're doing is coloring and playing but to them. like, that's the basics of everything in life, like, learning how to add, learning how to read, you know, it's, it's everything.
And to them, it's not easy, just cos it's easy to us doesn’t meant it is easy to them and, oh, just that moment when things click oh it's golden, it's hard to describe it.
No, I think, but I think you described it really well. And I mean, you and I are such great readers, and we have such pleasure, we derive such pleasure from reading.
And yes, I suppose for our final question, when you heard that I was going to be the curator of Teachers Inspire, and I suppose that the mission for this was to give a voice so that people could acknowledge, you know, what, what the importance of what teachers do, and I suppose particularly during COVID, and during lockdown, and as you said, when I suppose when parents could see firsthand how difficult this job is, yeah, I suppose I'd love to know do like, we know, what's your opinion of Teachers Inspire and the initiative in general?
I think it's great. I think any kind of space where teachers are seen as a positive thing, and a positive influence is, is amazing for all of us cos I think we're so used to the bashing and the, you know, the Facebook comments and articles. And I just think it's a lovely way to celebrate teachers, I suppose and kind of all that we do.
Like, I think people forget as well, you know, especially in primary, they are so small and like you're spending five and six hours a day with them, you know, you're spending probably, in some cases more time with them than their parents are for that year. And like the bond that you create is just so important. And that's why I just think it's, it is so lovely to kind of celebrate teachers and, I suppose, kind of look at the nice things that they do and the good work that they do.
Yeah, because I think the I mean, I agree with you, the work you're doing is so important, and the impact you're having on these children. And the the, you know, the, the adults that they will become is sort of immeasurable.
So I think this is a great way of saying thank you. And thank you so much for coming on today, your first podcast appearance , podcast.
My first podcast,
Thank you so much Michelle
Thanks Lou [Low]
I'm Louise O'Neill. Thank you for joining me for the first episode of the Teachers Inspire Ireland podcast for 2022 You can hear all of the episodes wherever you get your podcasts, and you can find out more. And maybe tell us about a teacher that made a difference in your life at teachers inspire.ie. So, until the next time, goodbye.